Anatomy of Mind
04 - 27 June, 2021
Opera Gallery, London UK
By DONALD KUSPIT, June 2021
Frozen on a Chair in Andy Denzler’s portrait of her, 2020, the young woman is mute as well as unmoving, dead to the world, as her lowered head, downcast eyes, and limp arms suggest, but the paint out of which she is made, and that seems to pool on the floor on which the chair rests—both seem to dematerialize in the act of being rendered (suggesting that she also might dematerialize)—seems to shudder, convulse, even quake, animated in abrupt contrast with her inanimate appearance. The paint has presence, and gives her presence, suggests she is alive however dead—depressed--she looks. The paint breathes a certain life into her—it seems like an anti-depressant, not clearly working, for she remains depressed, but it suggests that something is going on inside her. The painterly process—the shuddering paint--suggests that she is in emotional process: the portrait has an unfinished look, suggesting that she is not yet finished with life. Looking at the portrait—the portrayal, representation of her emotional state (as well as the process of painting)—I found myself thinking of the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing’s description of schizophrenic experience as “a voyage from outer to inner, from life to a kind of death” and “subsequently a return voyage from inner to outer, from death to life”(1)—a kind of spiritual voyage, a process of transformation not unlike the mystic’s voyage through the “dark night of the soul” towards the “light of God.”
Denzler’s painterly gestures shudder with uncanny, sensitive feeling rather than assert themselves with brute force, as New York School painterly gestures tend to do. However abstract his gestures seem to be, however much they can be appreciated as aesthetic and expressive phenomena in themselves, whatever representational purpose they serve, they are not raw with instinct and self-dramatizing as the gestures of the New York abstract expressionists tend to be. Pollock, de Kooning, Kline tend to make stand-alone gestures, existing for their own grand sake, whatever representational purpose they nominally serve—whatever they “suggest.” In contrast, Denzler’s gestures are empathic responses to human beings with an inner life—his basic concern. Feeling for them, he tries to fathom their feelings, conveyed through his painterly gestures. Does the fact that his paintings are lyrically tender rather than pretentiously epic like the paintings of the New York School have anything to do with the fact that Denzler is a Swiss artist rather than an American artist, that he lives and works in Zurich rather than in New York? He is seasoned in traditional European art, aware of refined Old Master portraiture as well as rough-and-ready process painting, suggesting that he is equal to the task of post-modern painting, the integration of what Baudelaire called the Grand Tradition and Harold Rosenberg called the Tradition of the New. He is thus what I have called a New Old Master.
“Shudder is a kind of premonition of subjectivity, a sense of being touched by the other,” the aesthetician and sociologist T. W. Adorno writes. Crucially, “without shudder consciousness is trapped in reification….The subject is lifeless except when it is able to shudder in response to the total spell.”(2) Denzler “touches” the figure with the “otherness” of his painterly shudder---an expression of his psyche attempting to unfreeze the frozen woman, struggling to break the ice, as it were, and as such at odds with her appearance, altogether “other” than she is and as such a sign(ature) of Denzler’s “otherness,” the portraitist always other than the portrayed even as he must identify with her to “grasp” her. Denzler’s frozen female looks like a studio prop, a mannequin or doll rather than a human model—a mass produced thing that has broken down, as the figure’s fragmented appearance suggests, rather than an organic being. Indeed, she has been reified—turn into an inanimate thing—by her depression; Denzler’s painterly shudder is his attempt to de-reify her, and with that to snap her out of her depression, to bring her to life. A sort of sleeping beauty, Denzler’s painterly shudder is a sort of kiss that hopes to awaken her, to restore her to consciousness, and with that confirm that she is a living being not a dead thing. In depression one withdraws from the world, and she may be withdrawing from him—resisting his male gaze?, refusing to be appropriated, examined, dissected by an artist? His insistent gestures do seem to cut into her body, indeed, cut it to pieces, perhaps suggesting his ambivalence about her, the opposite sex. The majority of his portraits are of females--14 of 22; male and female appear together in 2 of the 22—suggesting his obsession with woman, and perhaps fear of her, as Witcher’s #11, 2021 suggests. Does his painterliness compulsively assault her even as it passionately embraces her? But its shudder gives her uncanny presence; no longer matter-of-factly given, she becomes irreducibly individual, whatever her mood.
To reify a person is to depersonalize her by regarding her as a thing, and with that alienate her from herself—Denzler’s frozen woman is in the position of self-alienation, indicated by her withdrawal into the depths of depression, and with that becoming immobilized in the chair, fixed in social place, as it were. She’s not just taking the trouble of posing for him, passively holding a pose as long as he wishes, a prisoner of his ambitious creativity. Instead, I suggest that she’s deeply troubled by her situation: that she unconsciously phantasizes that he’s slashing her with sadistic brushstrokes, and masochistically responds to their self-alienating effect—probably also the unconsciously self-alienating effect of being reduced to an artist’s model—by withdrawing into a depression. She keeps what’s left of her spirit—clearly not much—for herself, leaving her body behind for him to do with whatever he wishes. She may unconsciously experience Denzler’s painterly shudder—to her perhaps ruthless gesturalism--as an attack on her body, deliberately freezing her psyche—playing dead like a cornered animal--in defensive response. I am suggesting that she may not be constitutionally depressed, but may have deliberately retreated into herself to resist, escape, refuse Denzler’s painterly embrace, much the way Daphne resisted Apollo’s embrace. Denzler’s probing scrutiny of his female model is not exactly the so-called male glance, full of inconsiderate desire, nor an empiricist’s attempt to get the observed facts “scientifically” right, but the instrument of his painterly shudder--a well-intentioned effort to de-objectify her and with that acknowledge, engage, and respect the subjectivity conveyed by her depression. His portraits do not freeze the female in place as a passive, feelingless “thing of erotic beauty,” as so many portraits of nude females do—among them Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1647, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1534, and Ingres’s Grand Odalisque, 1814, all of them goddesses rather than down to earth human beings, their bodies clothed and as full of feeling as their faces, as Denzler’s females are.
His males are not as alive with feeling—seem to have a more shallow, not to say simple inner life—than his females, however moody the individuals in Male Torso #1, #3 and #4 are. All bust portraits, their faces lack the fullness of feeling that his female faces and bodies have, not to say the changing complexity of feeling in Girl with Pink Shirt #1, #2, #3 and the triptych Portrait of Vivien, 2021. The males all look outward, suggesting they don’t have much inner life, in contrast to the females, all looking inward, even when they seem to look outward, now and then at the spectator—and artist. There is certainly no Edge of Desire in the faces of the males, as there is in the female in the 2021 painting of her. Denzler’s males tend to be pensive, his females tend to be sensuous, and more intensely alive, as their more complex feelings suggest. All of Denzler’s females are young, thin, attractive, and alone with themselves, and unhappy, implicitly or explicitly, perhaps because they seem filled with unrequited desire, as the pink shirt of the girl in the triptych and the red miniskirt of the Girl with a Houseplant, 2021 suggests.
Winston in Venice Beach, 2021 suggests the problem—or at least one of the problems—of Denzler’s males and females: far in the distance, Winston is alone in his bed; in the foreground, a voluptuous, half-naked female stands in the right corner of the painting, as far from Winston as it is possible to get in the picture. They’re in the same frame, but they couldn’t be more alienated. They’re so far apart from each other as to be irreconcilable. It’s not the war of the sexes, but the irreconcilability of the sexes, not to say the sexual problems of both. The depressed collapsed female in Denzler’s Far Memory, 2021 reminds me of Freud’s remark that hysterics suffer from memories—that everybody does. All of Denzler’s paintings are psychological portraits, and the psyches of the people portrayed is not exactly outgoing—they’re all young, supposedly in the prime of life, but unhappy. They may want a good relationship with someone, but they seem incapable of it, which is why they are alone with their unhappy selves. Switzerland is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, but it seems that its inhabitants—Denzler’s Swiss women and men—are not the happiest in the world.
According to Marxism, reification involves “transformation of human beings into thing-like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing-world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.”(3) It is the spell of reification that Denzler’s painterly shudder attempts to break, and with that restore the humanity of human beings, or rather remind them that they are human beings with complex feelings rather than feelingless robots, subjects with a life of their own whatever their place and function in society, particularly a capitalist society which commodifies everything, which knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, to quote Oscar Wilde. (He wrote a critique of capitalism.) The painterly shudder is an act of defiance and resistance to social reification and with that the devaluation of human life. Alienation and reification are not particular to modern capitalist society, but an inevitable consequence of socialization, a fact of social life. It is the “discontent” that comes with becoming “civilized,” as Freud wrote, which involves finding and taking one place in society—hopeful a useful place, a place which turns one into a cog in a social machine—and with that become what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called a false self, more rather than less completely compliant to society, and with that no creativity of one’s own.
Denzler’s painterly shudder is in effect what Winnicott calls the spontaneous gesture which shows that one is a True creative Self. The paralyzing unhappiness of Denzler’s men and women—the inertia that informs many of them, the unstable feelings that disturb others--suggests that they are stuck between False Selfhood and True Selfhood. Denzler’s painterly shudder is a spontaneous gesture that attempts to restore them to True Selfhood, but I suggest that it is ambiguously spontaneous because it has become reified by art history—overused, with whatever modifications, since it was first used by Kandinsky, and because it has been put to representational or descriptive use not only to purely aesthetic and expressive use, as it is in so-called abstract expressionism. But that is no doubt a fate better than death, and serves the post-modern purpose of imaginatively integrating figuration and abstraction, the subject matter of the Grand Tradition and the method of modernism, as noted earlier, or, more pointedly, to re-integrate the subject and the object, which separated when Kandinsky blinded himself to Monet’s haystack and saw only its color, the haystack dissolving into irrelevance: Denzler refuses to let that happen to any human being, however irrelevant to themselves his collapsed figures seem, however desperately struggling for relevance the figures with their restlessly changing expressions seem.
Denzler’s dynamic gesture may reify into a passive plane, more broadly tends to devolve into a geometrical form descriptive of space, and with that lose some shudder, become oddly decadent—a modest distant ancestor of Kandinsky’s “spiritualizing” gesture—but it nonetheless promises to revitalize people who have lost spirit, their will to life, or who lead troubled lives, as their wildly fluctuating emotions, none happy, suggests. They are all peculiarly lost souls, struggling to find themselves, as Lost and Found, 2021 suggests, but never doing so, giving up on themselves. However much it may become an aesthetic thing in itself, however purely abstract it seems, Denzler’s painterly shudder is charged with emotional purpose, fraught with emotional promise and hope—the wish and will to rehumanize individuals who have become perversely dehumanized, depleted or confused, by modern society, more precisely the technological society in which we all live and which kills many of us. Denzler’s painterly shudder has a therapeutic purpose, however much it sometimes makes a spectacle of itself, dramatizes itself. WM
(1)T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 284
(3)Gajo Petrovic, “Reification,” A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 412
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author